Learning to Perceive the American Soul

by Joel A. Wendt

this essay was first published in the Evolving News for Members
of the Anthroposophical Society in America, in the Summer of 2010

Rudolf Steiner had much to say in the course of his life concerning the division of the world into Eastern and Western cultures (Orient and Occident) on the one hand, and Eastern, Central, and Western soul characteristics on the other. It is important to distinguish the cultural manifestations from the soul characteristics. In this article I am only going to reflect briefly, and, I hope, deeply, on the particular soul characteristics of Americans; I urge readers of Steiner to seek to appreciate a certain subtlety involved when he spoke about East and West from these different points of view—in the one case about spiritual culture and in the other about the general characteristics of the soul. One way to help see this is to conceive of spiritual culture as related to the history of ideas, and another is to see that matters of the character of the soul involve the evolution of consciousness.

There are many possible approaches to perceiving the American soul, one of which is reading books and pamphlets. These could include (but not be limited to) Carl Stegmann’s The Other America: The Western World in the Light of Spiritual Science; Dietrich V. Asten’s America’s Way: The Tasks Ahead; and F. W. Zeylmans van Emmichoven’s America and Americanism. These materials are, by the way, the work of European-born individuals whose interest and curiosity about America and Americans can be very useful. At the same time we need to note that these authors did not possess an American soul, so those soul phenomena that can only be understood through objective and scientific introspective self-knowledge will have escaped their vision.

Another way to perceive the American soul is to look at American spiritual culture, past, present, and future, for such culture can be a kind of mirror of soul characteristics. Certainly, for example, the Transcendentalists are worth a good look, and we can ask a significant question by wondering whether and in what way Transcendentalism is similar to or different from Romanticism and/or German Idealism. Obviously, we can look also to Rudolf Steiner as part of this past.

For example, Steiner said in The Challenge of the Times that English speakers live instinctively in the sphere of the consciousness soul in their life of rights. He also said, in lectures to the workmen on 3 March 1923, that Americans come to anthroposophy naturally, while Central Europeans come to anthroposophy spiritually. An ongoing meditative contemplation of the concepts in these sentences can bear much fruit.

As someone inspired by three years spent with Carl Stegmann and the Emerson study group in the early 1980s in Fair Oaks, California, I will try to bring forward as the heart of this essay a few of the more essential results of my own thirty years’ spiritual research on the American soul.

My principle discovery was to come to understand that in the “Western,” both in film, television, and novel forms, there existed a deep, nearly mythic, representation of the American soul (sometimes in American Studies classes this is called the “American character”). One could go into this in great detail, but here I only have space for a kind of sketch. Please keep in mind that in looking at American film, television, and novels we are looking at spiritual culture (various forms of expression in the history of ideas) and finding mirrored in these artistic expressions deep aspects of the American soul.

For those not familiar with American culture, let me recall some facts. The Western was a popular type of film right from the beginning of the silent movies in the 1920s. From television’s arrival in the 1950s, the Western was a principle dramatic form that prevailed for decades. Western novels are less well known, but those who want to do further research may want to look closely at the works of Zane Gray. Some academics consider the hard-boiled detectives of film noir to be a translation of some of the antiheroic characteristics of the better Westerns into a more modern social environment.

Let’s consider for a moment the basic plot structure of the Western (and somewhat, of the detective story). First there is in the community the presence of evil. This evil evokes fear, and thus paralyzed, the community is unable to act. Then enters the lone stranger, who at sometimes great personal cost makes individual sacrifices that result in the removal (or taming) of evil. Often the community will not be grateful for this service, and the lone stranger (if he survives) might be rejected by the community. There are, of course, many variations on this basic theme.

The best modern practitioner of the art of the Western in film is the actor, writer, and director Clint Eastwood. While many sensitive souls will be repelled by the violence of the Western, we need to remember that those individuals who are willing to face down evil in any community do so at grave personal risk. Eastwood’s work is well regarded by his peers, and his penultimate expression of the Western, the film Unforgiven, won many awards.

In the beginning the Western was simple in its use of archetypes, with the good guy wearing a white hat and the bad guy wearing a black hat. In Unforgiven the real moral ambiguity of the consciousness-soul age is fully present, for in this film there are clearly no good guys or bad guys. Eastwood in Unforgiven plays a down-and-out former murderer who is hired by some prostitutes to kill a cowboy who viciously cut the face of one of their friends while he was drunk.

This archetype of the cowboy is so subtly prevalent in American society that we often miss its broader appearance and implications. For example, the elder former-president Bush instinctively moved to Texas in 1948 to step away from the reality of his father’s family ties to a wealthy New England elite; he also moved in order to clothe his own young family in the myths of Texas manhood. One can find, among political historians of America, insightful considerations of the importance of this struggle between the Yankees and the cowboys (the Northeast vs. the Southwest). John F. Kennedy was a Yankee and his vice president, Lyndon Johnson, was a cowboy. The cowboy is, of course, more in line with the true myth of the American character (soul) in the guise of the common man of the West, while the Yankee is more in line with the elites of banking—what some call the merchant princes—who are historically the inheritors of many of the former powers of the once-dominant aristocracies of blood.

There are many other films that could be discussed, such as High Noon starring Gary Cooper (who was born in Helena, Montana, making him not only a natural common man of the West but an ideal personality for many of the films of Frank Capra, such as Meet John Doe). Clint Eastwood also made the remarkable film Pale Rider, in which, in response to the prayer of a young adolescent girl, a dead man (Eastwood) comes to town dressed as a preacher in order to confront the evil there (Revelation 6:8: “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death...”).

Now hidden behind this somewhat mythic picture of the lone stranger and the problem of evil in the community is something more general in the American soul that can be described in this way: The American uses thinking to solve a problem perceived as social. If we understand that thinking is a spiritual activity and that ideas are crucial spiritual aspects of human existence, this use of thinking by Americans is not only important to perceive, but we also need to understand how the West is different in its thinking gesture (soul characteristics) from the center and from the East. Here we have stepped away from the mirroring aspect of American spiritual culture and entered directly into the real realm of soul processes that can be observed through scientific and objective introspection.

As anthroposophists in America we are more familiar with the thinking gesture of the center, which is not necessarily something good for Americans to imitate and practice. In the center, the thinking gesture stands between what is earthly and what is heavenly so that human beings of the center, in their social practices, want to incarnate the ideal. Their thinking takes hold of the ideal and seeks to bring it into incarnation. As a phenomenon in the Anthroposophical Society and movement we see this in habitual and semiconscious approaches to Rudolf Steiner’s conceptions of a threefold social order. The social world is to be molded into the shape of this remarkable ideal.

When Americans try to do this we mostly fail, in large part because it is an unnatural gesture in the realm of thinking, although rooted in understandable imitation of our European brothers and sisters (remember, Americans are natural anthroposophists). Just as represented in the American myth, the Western, the American soul seeks to solve the problems it perceives in the social realm and the thinking gesture then seeks to grasp those ideas that “solve the problem” (thus our tendency to pragmatism). First comes the experience of the social dilemma and then the gesture of thinking that seeks to heal it. Deeply introspective self-observation will confirm this, as well as serious Goetheanistic examination of the phenomena of American life and culture.

Americans, then, do not try to conform social life to any ideal as do Europeans, but rather try to heal the social realm of its defects, and our natural gesture of thinking serves this need. We are first oriented toward what is earthly, and we reach up to the heavenly only as needed. We can understand this from social phenomena if we carefully recall the founding of the United States, which was prompted by multiple social problems connected to the evils the colonists perceived in the overreaching of the English aristocracy. In response to this we have Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1775); then the Declaration of Independence (1776), which led to war with England; and then finally the U.S. Constitution (1787). All of these were pragmatic attempts to solve certain social problems; in no way were they attempts to first conceive an ideal and then bring it to incarnation.

There is a very real question lurking in the background here that has to do with how the threefolding idea instinctively (English speakers instinctively inhabit the realm of the consciousness soul in the life of rights) and naturally (Americans are natural anthroposophists) arises in American political culture. As this is a very large theme, I can only give a couple of hints.

Some years ago (1991) I wrote a brief summary of certain beginning results of my social/spiritual research titled: “Threshold Problems in Thinking the Threefold Social Order.” In that short work I observed that similarly to cultural life, which has three aspects: science, art, and religion;—and similarly to economic life, which has latent within it (although yet to be fully expressed) a threefolding: producers, distributors, and consumers;—the rights life in the course of Western civilization came to comprise three aspects: the state, media, and the people. This made media, in its most comprehensive sense, the heart of the social organism (see also my 1995 essay: “Waking the Sleeping Giant: the Mission of Anthroposophy in America”).

Media presently consists of an old fourth-cultural-age aspect that is still dominated by top-down, pyramidal, hierarchical third-cultural-age structures such as huge media corporations and the new media (Western civilization is dying into a new becoming) with its morally free (instinctive and natural ethical-individualistic) tendencies (e.g., the Internet) to create a functioning media anarchy. As a result, Americans’ creative impulses have invented, for example, social networks (MySpace, Twitter, and Facebook, etc.) and free, creative media such as YouTube. These are the social growing point of a new, free media configuration and will turn out to be the best place for anthroposophy to become socially accessible in the future.

We need to visualize media in this sense as a dynamic, living social process within the total social organism. Recognizing the social necessity and inherent problems of media is a phenomenological and inventive approach to social threefolding rather than an ideological one that seeks to conform social relations to a preconceived ideal. It is within free media that new impulses (seeds) connected to the rights life will find their most vital social growth medium (soil).

It is also here in the heart of the rights life (free media) that the means to truly heal the social dysfunction currently manifesting in the world’s economic crisis will be found. If we understand threefolding in a living way we come to realize that the center (the rights life) is an amalgam or synthesis of the cultural and economic spheres. These social spheres are not separate from each other but interpenetrate in a living way such that free media bears within it the best of the cultural (free spiritual life) and economic (brotherhood and sisterhood impulses) realms in a kind of unitary combination or synthesis (see Steiner’s Inner Aspects of the Social Question for certain important indications).

Another way to examine the difference between the “center” and the true West (America) would be to compare the archetypes of Goethe’s Faust with the archetypes of the Western. The American is not a Central European in his fundamental soul characteristics, and Faust, as an example of mature spiritual culture in its representation of consciousness soul questions, is inapplicable to the same consciousness soul questions faced by the more youthful American soul and spiritual culture.

Understanding this difference between the American soul and the Central European soul will also help us to appreciate today’s split in American Waldorf education between the idealists who want pure, “ideal” Waldorf schools and the pragmatists who foster charter schools in order to make Waldorf education more universally available—seeing modern weakness in education as a social problem to be solved rather than as a situation demanding the incarnation of an ideal.

Now to round out our examination it would help to add the picture of this same thinking gesture as it tends to arise in the East (again, in the sense of soul characteristics and not spiritual-cultural tendencies). Whereas the West perceives what is earthly and seeks to solve its dilemmas, and the center perceives the ideal and seeks to bring it to incarnation—to build an artistic bridge from the ideal to the incarnate real, the East seems to want to remain united with the remembered ideal and leave behind entirely what is earthly.

Elaborating such a theme, however, might be going too far, because we are less familiar with both the phenomena and general spiritual history of the East than we are of these same facts for both the Center and the West. Thus my comments on the East here are brief, and are to be taken with a grain of salt in the absence of something far longer and more sophisticated.

So we have a powerful ahrimanic tendency in the West (a rich and vital materialism, with its obvious attendant dangers, including Ahriman’s incarnation, that seeks to bind the ego to the sense world); a presently imprisoned Christ-oriented tendency in the center (the higher elements of the German spirit, for example, have been held at bay by the appearance on the social plane of the Beast from the Abyss within National Socialism following Steiner’s death); and an ancient and powerful luciferic tendency in the East for merging the soul with a now rigid, overly ideal order that would then strongly inhibit the earthly freedom of the ego (the spirit), witness a continued presence of remnants of the caste system in modern India.

Rudolf Steiner has challenged us to understand this and to find a way that these differentiated soul gestures might work together. Each by itself is one-sided. Through our conscious coworking via international conferences on these very themes, we may discover the means by which the anthroposophical movement might offer true healing to the social world of humanity in a more integrated fashion. For example, far less urgency for idealistic Waldorf schools, and more support for local adaptations of the basic themes. For Americans, the path to this work begins with increased self-understanding and the perception of our own soul characteristics as distinct from those of the center and the East.

Without a deeper knowledge of our own soul and how it is differentiated from the other soul gestures in the threefold world of West, center, and East, anthroposophy in America will suffer. Already there has been in the society and movement here in America an excess of interest in European culture at the expense of coming to know American culture. Granted, European culture contains the heights to which Western civilization has risen, but this is of the past. The West, particularly America, is of the future.

Here is the English anthroposophist Terry Boardman, in the 1999 book The Future Is Now: Anthroposophy at the New Millennium, reflecting on Steiner’s thoughts: “In his lectures to the West-East Congress in Vienna 1922, Rudolf Steiner spoke of Europe-Asia as ‘the problem’ of modern times and Europe-America as ‘the solution’. By this he meant that Europeans were preserving the dessicated remnants of an ancient Asian spirituality in the dusty abstractions of their intellectual, political, and religious systems. The future lay rather with the will to create out of nothing. And this willingness he saw in the youthful energies of the Americans.”

A first step in consciously manifesting this potential to perceive the American soul depends upon Americans taking up not only the introspective study of their own souls but also a deep and appreciative encounter with their own, albeit youthful, culture. The practice of anthroposophy, as we all should know, is about self-knowledge. We can, as an aid to our inquiries concerning the American soul, adapt something Steiner has said in a more universal context: We learn the most about ourselves (our American character) by studying that which is outside us (in this case American culture), and the most about what is outside us (American culture) by studying ourselves (our personal version of the American character). That we also bear more universal soul characteristics should not be forgotten, but if we want to learn to better perceive the American soul the above orientation will be a great help.

From personal experience let me add one final thought. It is crucial to love any object of thought if we are to draw near to its true idea-essence. If we harbor antipathies to American culture—if, for example, we judge it as wanting in comparison with European culture—we will by that presumption disable our capacity to know, through love, the genuine and youthful creative heart of American culture. And, unfortunately, we will also miss coming to know something quite profound in ourselves as Americans.

Joel Wendt is the author of several books which can be read for free at his blog “Shapes in the Fire".  William Bento’s review of American Anthroposophy, the latest book, precedes this essay.